Chef Danny Bowien is an interesting character. His background, born in Korea but adopted to American parents and raised in Oklahoma in the “Buckle of the Bible Belt”, the chef went on a journey to discover his identity and ultimately found it through food and his phenomenally successful Mission Chinese restaurants.
Speaking to the Financial Times podcast ‘Culture Call’ Bowien speaks about his upbringing, his search for identity, failing in public and why credibility is the new authenticity.
“My path to food is an interesting one,” he says, “because a lot of food, for a long time has been pretty much about heritage. Someone telling the story of where they’re coming from or the food they ate growing up, but if I were cooking the food I grew up eating, then I would be cooking…
I grew up in Oklahoma, I’m adopted. I’m Korean, but I would be cooing what my mom made, everything had ground beef in it. We were very working class, my dad worked for General Motors so vegetables were always out of a can were very buttery and typically something like Hamburger Helper, something really quick and easy. I didn’t have fresh asparagus until I was 19 when I chose to move out of Oklahoma, to attend culinary school. I didn’t grow up eating Chinese food or Asian food or Korean food. The first time I tried Korean food was when I was 19, when I got off the bus from the airport. The moment I had it… it felt like something I had always been eating my whole life. Chefs are very curious people, they’re on this journey on pursuit of flavour or the best version of something or provide someone with an experience. I guess for me it’s been interesting because I don’t necessarily have a tie to anything. Which is why I think Mission Chinese is so different.
From a cultural perspective, Bowen talks about the end of authenticity as the main driver in gastronomy and how the industry is moving towards credibility. “If you had talked to me ten years ago when Mission was just starting I would have been like ‘I don’t care because I’m not trying to be authentic’. When things come done to it and you ask ‘is Danny cooking authentic Chinese food’, the answer is no.,” he says. “Authenticity was such a hot word. Everyone was like ‘I’m going to take you to taste the most authentic version of this’, but chefs, all chefs, all we really want to do is make people happy and we want validation, we just want to know people have enjoyed themselves. For a long time for a lot of people, the way to get to that end result was with the most authentic version because authenticity meant so much for so long, but I think now we’re living in a post-authentic world now I think credibility I think is the most important thing.”
A fascinating character and a talented chef, Bowien speaks openly and articulately about is own journey, his failures and his successes. The podcast is well worth a listen.